A Closer Look at the Second Tier Ecosystem

Last month, we began looking at second tier ad networks, or second tier “search engines.”

Now let’s go more in-depth on a category that’s made great strides in policing itself and improving quality over the past three years or so. It may deserve a little more attention and a lot more respect from some of us.

A Peek Under the Hood

One of my old friends comes from this world. Patrick Hopf is former vice president at Mamma.com, one of the most talked about second tier engines. Today, he heads up SourceKnowledge a new entrant in the second tier world, with ambitions in the local space. He agreed to talk with me and explain the intricacies of the universe of the second tier networks. This is a high level summary of our discussion.

Where Does All This Traffic Come From?

The veil needs to be lifted from this category. My fellow SEMs need to understand exactly what this beast is. We need to take a close look at all its ugliness and hopefully gain new insights and perhaps even discover its hidden beauty.

Because this isn’t the prettiest source of traffic you can buy. It’s not easy to harness. But if you understand it well, if you take the time to optimize and test, and your products or services “fit” the profile, you could be in for the biggest surprise.

Contrary to popular belief, there is volume here. Hundreds of millions of queries per day. But to tap into it, you need to know what you’re dealing with, decide if it’s for you, and know how to harness it.

Fundamentally, where do these hundreds of millions of “queries” per day come from? Hopf described the ecosystem of the second tier networks:

  1. Advertisers open an account with a second tier engine.
  2. Advertisers are provided with an interface to monitor the results of their campaigns, including raw clicks, filtered clicks, and cost. This information normally breaks down by keyword, sometimes by campaign.
  3. Publishers open an account with the second tier network and receive their JavaScript code to deploy across their sites. This code can be customized to specify a keyword that describes the context where the ad is displayed, and a subID for tracking purposes.
  4. When a visitor comes to a publisher site, the code is triggered, and the second tier network will poll its own ad/keyword inventory, as well as that of multiple other partner second tier networks, and return the highest paying result set from these sources. This is the key to understanding how little known networks can boast such volume — they have private deals among themselves to provide access to each other’s traffic and ads.
  5. When visitors click on one of the ads, the click is first filtered through their own set of filters. It then goes to a third party click fraud detection system like ClickForensics or AnchorIntelligence, or both. This ensures that the clicks which are sold are real clicks by real humans and that they take place under legitimate circumstances. According to Hopf, about 30 percent of all clicks are disqualified by this process. This process is relatively new, and this is why second tiers now deserve a better reputation, and another chance.

Second Tier Ad Network Ecosystem

Buyer Beware

This traffic obviously isn’t for everyone, far from it. If you run highly targeted campaigns, if you have to perform a lot of keyword culling to taste success, or if you need to focus on long tail keywords in any way to generate ROI, please do yourself a favor and keep doing what you’re doing! This is almost certainly not for you.

So when should you consider experimenting with these networks? Simple. Ask yourself: “Is this a popular affiliate category?” or “Am I promoting a general interest product that would interest the average Joe?” If the answer to any of these two questions is yes, then you must try second tier traffic.

Track Conversions, Revenue, ROAS

Be prepared to track everything. Keep a close eye on performance and make adjustments as you go along, just as you do with paid search.

You’ll have to encode all your destination URLs for tracking with your Web analytics platform of choice, and you’ll also have to prepare your “thank you” pages with the appropriate tracking code to capture leads, conversions, sales, revenue, or whatever makes you successful.

With all this information in hand, and the right tools at your disposal, the next time you or one of your clients needs help with a general interest product or service, why don’t you give second tier networks a second chance? You may be surprised at the outcome. Just be sure to remember what you’re dealing with.

Join us for SES Chicago on December 7-11, 2009. Now in its 11th year, the only major Search Marketing Conference and Expo in the Midwest will be packed with 70+ sessions covering PPC management, keyword research, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), social media, local, mobile, link building, duplicate content, video optimization and usability, while offering high-level strategy, keynotes, an exhibit floor, networking events and more.

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